Andy Kokaji

Forty Under 40 Winner 2017: Associate director of immunology, Stemcell Technologies Age 38

How’s this for a curriculum vitae grabber: Developed new stem cell and immunological applications used in a new therapy that defeats childhood leukemia.

To be clear, Andy Kokaji didn’t cure cancer. But he can boast about leading a team of scientists that developed applications that are now being used in a new immune therapy that cures acute lymphoblastic leukemia – the most common form of childhood cancer.

It’s just one of the more notable in a long list of accomplishments during Kokaji’s last nine years at Stemcell Technologies, where, as associate director of immunology, he leads four teams of scientists.

“He is a creative genius,” Stemcell founder and CEO Allen Eaves said of the company protege, who was promoted eight times in eight years.

Kokaji is credited with pushing Stemcell into a new field – the CAR T-cell immunotherapy market. This new approach uses a patient’s own T cells, genetically modified, to attack cancer cells.

That move helped land Stemcell’s largest licensing deal to date, with GE Healthcare, for the use of Stemcell’s EasySep and ImmunoCult products, which are used to create cells and genes for immunotherapy.

Born and raised in Edmonton, Kokaji earned a bachelor of science degree in molecular genetics and a PhD in immunology from the University of Alberta.

“I hired him into the research and development department in 2008, before he had officially graduated from his PhD, to be sure he wasn’t scooped up by someone else,” said Stemcell’s chief science officer, Terry Thomas.

Kokaji admitted he is sometimes torn in his work between being a manager and being a scientist.

“As a scientist, your identity can be rooted in your personal body of work or discoveries,” he said. “After so much education and training, switching to managing others doing the work you would rather be doing yourself took some adjustment. However, seeing others grow their scientific curiosity and acumen has become incredibly rewarding.”

When he isn’t in the lab, Kokaji is in the kitchen.

Birthplace:

Edmonton

Where you live now:

Vancouver

Highest level of education:

PhD in immunology

Currently reading:

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee

Currently listening to:

"Hot 8 Brass Band," Dave Matthews Band, Hawaiian reggae

When you were a kid, what you wanted to be when you grew up:

At a relatively young age I decided that I should do medical research in some form or the other

Profession you would most like to try:

Michelin inspector (professional eater)

Toughest business or professional decision:

Deciding between continuing to focus my career at the lab bench or taking on more management responsibilities

Advice you would give the younger you:

Pay more attention at Japanese school, follow your instincts, surround yourself with people smarter than you

What’s left to do:

As a scientist, every time we discover something it creates more questions that need to be explored. Gaining knowledge and understanding of the world we live in will be a lifelong journey for me.

Join us to celebrate the 2017 Forty under 40 Awards on January 23, 2018, at the Vancouver Convention Centre. For tickets and event info visit http://www.biv.com/events/40under40 

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